Monday, July 20, 2015


Monte Bulgheria from the train

The train is driven onto the ferry

The other half of the train in the belly of the ferry

Seabastioano and his nonno

Our hotel, the Villa Taormina

View of the gardens from our balcony

A street scene in Taormina

Etna from the breakfast room

Still active

Beautiful Taormina

Etna from the Public Gardens

The Ancient Theater
Taormina and Etna above the scaena of the theater

One of Taromina's many piazze

The shaded jacuzzi

Sandy enjoys our balcony

The so-called Naumachia, actually a nymphaeum

Seascape and Taormina from Castelmola

Sunset behind Etna from the castle at Castelmola

This week we had no regular piccolo giro but a real viaggio, and it was to one of the most storied, mythical, and beautiful parts of Italy.  And it was wonderful.

To the average American, Sicily denotes only one thing, and that is sad because it is the least important aspect of this complex island.  Not to underestimate the influence of Cosa Nostra in Sicily, it continues to be great and thoroughly pernicious, but increasingly it is a cultural relic which is slowly dying.  But to anyone interested in myth, history, cooking, or just plain beauty, Sicily is a touchstone of all that is best about Italy.  Sicily has been a cultural crossroads since Neolithic times and has seen Mycenaean Greek, Phoenician, Archaic Greek, Carthaginian, Sikel, Classical Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Moorish, Arabic, Norman French, Aragonese Spanish, and Bourbon French influence, and that list is far from exhaustive.  And somehow all those influences have melded into something quite unique.  Not Italian, distinctively Sicilian.

        Our trip was something of a luxury, since it involved extensive travel and two nights’ stay in a hotel, but we claim as our excuse that rascal Fabio, who plied us with stories of his travels there two years ago and insisted we absolutely had to go.  What else could we do?  The real kicker was Fabio’s explanation of the mode of travel, by high speed train to southern Calabria, the toe of the boot, where the train was driven onto a ferry, carried across the Straits of Messina to the island, then driven onto tracks and off to the various cities along the coastline.  Imagine, a ferry that carries cars, trucks...and trains!  The whole trip, Fabio said, took about 5 hours and cost 26 euros, a relative pittance.  

So early last week we made our way to the Centro where one of Fabio’s close friends, Signore Domini, who owns a travel agency, made out our itinerary and reserved tickets for us.  And early Wednesday morning Fabio took us down to the station, validated our tickets for us, led us to the correct platform, and waved us good-bye as we boarded the train.  Needless to say, Fabio is very protective of us.  And we love him for it.

Now, in an earlier blog I mentioned that I had opted for a second-class ticket instead of first-class and almost immediately regretted it.  Signore Domini proffered first-class tickets again, and this time I took them...and almost immediately began to regret it.  The price was basically double.  But we read on the itinerary how the seats would be comfortable, how free drinks and snacks would be served, and how we could cool our tushes in luxurious toilets.  Maybe on some trains, but not on this one.  The compartments were quite nice, with big roomy seats, six to a compartment.  Think Hogwarts Express compartments, only updated.  And the train zoomed along at a brisk 120 mph.  But there was no snack cart selling Magic Frogs, nor even a bag of chips, and the two Americani had eaten breakfast early and anticipated a 5 hour trip!  The handsome older Italian gentleman with whom we shared the compartment was better prepared, and brought out a bag of pannini and fruit for himself and his adorable little five-year-old grandson, Sebastiano.  There were napkins, cups for the bottled water, even wipes for the hands and face.  All very civilized.  Meanwhile, we looked on with envy, and alarm.  But the biggest jolt of all was that every toiletta we tried was locked!  On a five hour trip!  There are some levels of cruelty that should mark Italian bureaucrats for the lowest level of Dante’s Inferno.

Still, the trip was speedy, the scenery spectacular, at least what we could see of it.  Perhaps some third of the voyage was through tunnels.  Americans go over mountains, Italian trains and interstate highways go through them.  Your ears will always alert you that a galleria is coming up in 2 seconds and that it will end in 2 seconds.  And by the time you reach your destination, your sinuses will be perfectly clear.

At little San Giovanni di Reggio on the toe of the boot we were throttled by a long queue to access a ferry, not an unpleasant prospect except that the air conditioning was turned off and we baked for almost an hour.  But, how can you complain when your turn comes soon enough and your train is pushed by a little work engine down a long ramp and into the belly of a large ferry.  Sandy was able to get video of the whole procedure, and I have to believe her fourth-graders will be bug-eyed when they see it.  Heck, I’m still bug-eyed myself.  Passengers are allowed to detrain and climb several flights of stairs to a salon deck for a spectacular view of the crossing.  A vista which I thoroughly enjoyed after I finally was able to pee and my eyeballs floated back down into their sockets.  Sweet Sandy not only did her business but bucked a long line at the bar-cafĂ© and bought us some chips to pacify grumbling stomachs.

For anyone with an interest in mythology, these straits are storied waters.  Here were Scylla and Charybdis, a horrible whirlpool and a savage, man-eating monster on either side, the two of which dispatched several of Odysseus’ companions in a horrid meal and ultimately wrecked his ships.  Thrown up on the flanks of Mt. Etna, he confronted the cyclops Polyphemus, who gobbled up several of the survivors before the wily O devised a scheme to escape.  Meanwhile, beneath Etna, the imprisoned Titans are at work in their furnaces, forging horrible weapons, most notably Zeus’ thunderbolts.  And from the top and flanks of Etna can be seen the flames and smoke of their monstrous forges.

And, sure enough, our train whizzed through the little town of Scilla, without incident, I’m happy to report, nor did we confront a man-eater in the straits.  But I’m told the currents in the straits can still be quite tricky for the inexperienced sailor.  On the other side awaited the pretty town of Messina, ally of ancient Rome and a storied Greek colony in its own right.  Here we encountered another long, hot queue, exacerbated, we learned, by the fact that some hotshot from Rome was traveling in a following train and some 8 trains ahead of him were delayed to allow him to pass.  The computer system used to route the thousands of Italian trains per day is state-of-the-art...until it is thoroughly mucked up by the morass of Italian politics.  Thus did our 5 hour trip become an 8 hour trip.

But soon enough we were off again, and 40 minutes later we decamped at Giardini-Naxos and bade our new friends good-bye.  Nonno had gone to Rome where his son is enrolled at the University and was bringing little Sebastian back to his mama in Avola, south of Catania.  Avola is the home of my favorite red wine in the world, Nero d’Avola.  Naxos has its own claim to fame, being the oldest Greek colony in Italy, founded in 734 BCE by refugees from the Greek island of the same name, off the coast of Turkey, when their little settlement was sacked by the Persian armies.  Sadly, little Sicilian Naxos was also sacked, this time by the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius in 403 BCE, and so there is none of the old city to see, only the modern beach resort.  But for a classicist, just standing on this hallowed ground was a thrill.  And there, looming over us, was the real gem:  Taormina, Greek Tauromenion and Roman Taurmenium, clinging to the slopes of Monte Tauro.  

A quick cab ride took us to the heart of this beautiful little town and to our hotel, the Villa Taormina, where we were received by the gracious hostess, Signora Elena, who gave us a quick orientation and led us to our room.  And we knew those eight hours of rather uncomfortable travel were well worth the price.  The Villa Taormina is a restoration of a nineteenth-century villa, built in turn on some of the remains of an eighth-century convent, the Badia Vecchia.  The little hotel has only 10 rooms, but it is a gem, gorgeously decorated in period style (this was a villa in the luxurious sense of the word), but accentuated with classical statues and Medieval religious icons.  Our room was absolutely beautiful, spacious, decorated in period furniture, with a huge modern bathroom complete with a jacuzzi tub, and with a cute little balcony for two which overlooked a cascade of gardens rampant with jasmine, bougainvillea, ivy, laurel, all spectacularly happy in this semitropical environment.  Best of all, our room was equipped with a real, honest-to-goodness, efficient air-conditioner and the temperature in the room was sheer luxury.  Our heat wave continues, and in fact the fiercest heat has now made its relentless way southward into the heart of the Mezzogiorno.  We took a good half hour just to luxuriate in that cool air and ogle our surroundings.

By now it was early evening and the brunt of the heat was dissipating, so out we went for a stroll through the heart of Taormina.  Taormina was founded, in 358 BCE after the destruction of Naxos, by the father of Timaeus, a famous Greek historian and a name to conjure with in Roman historiography as well, since he is the first to speak of that new political force.  But it was founded on the site of an older trading emporium populated by Sikels, the indigenous people of Sicily, as well as Phoenicians and Greeks.  It managed to steer clear of many of the imbroglios of the warring tyrants in other Sicilian Greek colonies (a tyrant was originally an elected king in Greek towns, but these guys eventually learned to richly deserve the modern denotation of the word as well).  In 263 BCE, Greek Tauromenion allied itself with an up-and-coming power in southern Italy, namely Rome, and that alliance served her well for many years.  Tauromenion was awarded the status of allied city, which meant she retained political independence and was exempted from military exactions and other taxes.  In one of the so-called Servile Wars, when huge numbers of slaves rebelled and were suppressed only with great difficulty, Tauromenion became  a stronghold for the slave armies and suffered terribly in the ensuing struggle to unseat them.  She seems to have recovered quickly, but then her luck with the Romans ran out; she sided with the son of Pompey the Great in the civil war against Octavian, the future emperor Augustus.  The upshot was that her Greek citizens were summarily booted off their land in 26 BCE and the town became a Roman colonia, a settlement for retired Roman legionaries, and took the Roman name Tauromenium.  

Under the Romans, Taormina throve as well, and it was they who rebuilt the Greek theatre in grandiose style, changed the old Greek agora to a proper Forum, complete with a public bath complex, an odeion (a small theatre for indoor performances such as music and dance), and a huge nymphaeum, a water feature at the front of a huge cistern, with no fewer than 8 cascading fountains, just to show off the superfluity of water the little town now had thanks to the construction of two Roman aqueducts.  Taormina became a thriving Byzantine town when the Western Empire fell and maintained that role long after most parts of Sicily had fallen to the Moors.  But she doesn’t seem to have suffered much under Moorish rule either, since they recognized her strategic importance.

Today, with the exception of some spectacular ancient ruins, the little town is a Medieval city superimposed on ancient footprints.  We wandered down the corso, the decumanus of the Roman town, enjoying the enchanting piazze and churches, the little shops with their foods, designer clothes, and touristy wares of every description, the three monumental arches that define the limits of the old ramparts of the city, now almost totally lost, and everywhere those spectacular views of the azure sea sparkling in the sunset below.  We stopped by one ristorante to enjoy an aperitivo and some blues sung in Italian (!), then continued our amble for a couple of hours, found another nice restaurant down a side street where we enjoyed an octopus salad and a pasta dish, did yet more wandering as the night descended, and made our way back to our blessedly cool and comfortable room for one of the soundest sleeps we’ve had in many a day.

But there was one spectacular sight which we didn’t see, and I’m mortified to admit that it was in plain sight the whole time.  Early Thursday morning we were up, showered and ready to go early to take advantage of the coolness of the morning and avoid the hordes of German, British and Australian tourists who are brought mid-afternoon to the little town from the cruise ships anchored offshore.  We sat on the balcony of the sunroom and tucked in to the most incredible continental breakfast we have ever had, just ogling those seascapes.  But finally, I turned to the right and almost fell off my chair, for there was mighty Etna, brooding on the southern horizon, that unmistakable profile silhouetted in the morning sun and a respectable plume of smoke issuing from one of the two pinnacles she now has.  Nothing quite prepared me for the scope of that monster, the base of which stretched literally from one terrestrial horizon to the other.  Etna had been clearly visible from at least a half-dozen prospects we had enjoyed the night before and we both managed to overlook the one spectacle which clearly dominates a good third of Sicily!

We had booked an extra night at the Villa on the chance that the trip down might take longer than expected and leave us insufficient time to explore, a fortunate decision as it happened.  But still, there is more to see in Taormina than you can see in a week, so we scooted out into the cool morning air and strolled through the public gardens, replete with all the luxuriant vegetation that is so famous in Sicily, plus formal gardens and statuary...and more panoramic views of that brooding giant.  We hit the Theatro Antico just as it was opening at 9 am so we could enjoy it almost alone.  How can I describe the feeling of sitting in the cavea of that huge theatre, watching the roadies on the stage and the still largely intact scaena break down the British production of Carmen which had been staged the night before, and seeing Etna in the background?  Simply magical.  You’ve all seen pictures of that famous theatre, it’s the most spectacularly (and deliberately) sited theatre from the classical world.  But I had to think, what idiot producer or playwright in his right mind would try to stage a play in this theatre?  You’d be guaranteed to be upstaged by Etna every time.

We made our way back to the Villa to cool off, then went out for a light lunch at a cute little bar called Bocconcì where the pannini were served on an incredible little Pugliesi bun called a puccia, a new taste for us and a delicious one, spent the hot part of the day back at the villa just luxuriating in the outdoor jacuzzi and the gardens, not to speak of that cool room, then out in the late afternoon for a tour of the Forum baths and the so-called Naumachia which is in fact the nymphaeum I previously mentioned, then, one of our favorite excursions, a trip by city bus up, up, up the tortuous road to Castelmola, some 500’ above Taormina, which is itself 900’ above the sea, and to the old Lombard castle there for more fantastic panoramas and a view of sunset highlighting Etna from behind and turning that plume of smoke a rosy pink.  Back down the road, shaking our heads in admiration for the thousandth time at the skill of the bus drivers in southern Italy, and then to another simple but delicious dinner at 9 pm and so back to the Villa.

We didn’t manage to see everything we wanted to, but of course we never do.  Italy is an infinite variety of spectacles, a great part of its charm.  But we saw much and what we did see was amazing.  Before we planned our trip, we had asked Fabio which Sicilian town he would see if he could only visit one and he answered without the least hesitation, “Taormina!”  As we sat after dinner just savoring the day, Sandy asked how I would rate our time in Taormina on a 1 to 10 scale and my answer was a resounding 10.  As was hers.  We saw only a tiny slice of that incredible island, but it was an amazing one.  And someday, God willing, we’ll be back for more.  But we’ll travel in coach.

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